The San Francisco Chronicle, January 11, 2013.
Congress will face many questions when it takes on immigration this year: Should illegal immigrants be given legal status? Should we raise or lower the number of new immigrants? Should we shift toward taking more skilled workers and fewer relatives of earlier immigrants?
But there's another question that has bedeviled our immigration policy for hundreds of years: Should newcomers, or illegal immigrants receiving amnesty, be put on a path to citizenship or be given a status that would permit them to legally work and travel but wouldn't culminate in citizenship?
This is shaping up as a dividing line between the major political parties. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida made waves last year by suggesting an amnesty for young illegal immigrants who came here as children (one of the many spin-offs of the Dream Act), but giving them work visas rather than citizenship. Something along these lines was introduced late last year in the form of the Achieve Act by retiring Republican Sens. Jon Kyl of Arizona and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas. Even the conservative policy journal National Affairs has an article by a respected political scientist making the case for such an approach for the bulk of the illegal immigrant population.
Democrats generally have pressed for a path to full citizenship for illegal immigrants and for future foreign workers. As far back as 1885, the embryonic labor movement helped pass the Alien Contract Labor Law, which prohibited the importation of guest workers. More recently, the issue caused dissension within the labor movement during the 2006-07 round of immigration debates. The Service Employees International Union made a strategic decision to ally with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in supporting a large guest worker program as the price of passing a "comprehensive" immigration reform bill. The AFL-CIO, on the other hand, stayed true to its opposition to contract labor, as did a number of Senate Democrats, including Barack Obama.
A number of arguments are offered for the non-citizenship approach:
First - and this is more a sentiment than an argument - the previous big amnesty gave full immigrant status to illegal immigrants, and it was a colossal failure. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 didn't fail because of the kind of status offered, of course (it failed because promises to enforce the law in the future were ignored), but it rightly leaves a bad taste in the mouth. More practically, as Boston College Professor Peter Skerry points out in the aforementioned National Affairs article, by 2009, fully two decades after getting their green cards, only about 41 percent of the 2.7 million illegal immigrants who benefited from the 1986 law had become naturalized citizens.
Some claim that giving illegal immigrants work visas rather than citizenship is an appropriate punishment, given that they knew what they were doing when they settled here illegally, and subsequently broke a whole series of other laws - tax fraud, identity theft, etc. Skerry calls it "a clear and decisive penalty." This has some merit, because the other penalties that illegal immigrants would be subject to under various reform proposals - notably large fines - are merely for public consumption. Few illegal immigrants could afford $10,000 per person to become legal residents, and so the fines would certainly be waived, resulting in no real penalty at all.
Another appeal of the non-citizenship option is that it somehow would not represent amnesty. Politicians on the left and the right are constantly trying to weasel out of the word "amnesty," even though that's the word for legalizing illegal immigrants. But focus-group research told amnesty supporters that the word was to be avoided and, ever since, they've insisted that some feature or other makes their latest proposal "not amnesty."
Visa holders would also not be able to sponsor future immigrants. That means both that such an amnesty wouldn't spark a significant wave of additional immigration down the road and also that the relatives of today's illegal immigrants would not be rewarded with citizenship themselves.
Finally, giving illegal immigrants or foreign workers a status short of citizenship keeps them from voting. This isn't as clear an indictment of Republican supporters of this approach as it may seem; Democrats from Barney Frank to SEIU President Eliseo Medina have been explicit in promoting mass immigration for nakedly political purposes, so it's no surprise that their opponents should also consider its political impact.
My own view is that we should admit fewer foreign workers, not more, and that amnesty is appropriate at this time only for illegal immigrants who've lived here since they were infants or toddlers. But whomever we do admit, or give amnesty to, should be given a path to full membership in our society. The alternative moves us toward the kind of two-tiered society we see in Saudi Arabia, a model we should do our best to avoid.